the life afloat: a musician in new york harbor


Paulus Hook, New Jersey, 2011

5 June 15:03

Here is multiversal New York on a sulky grey Sunday early in June, and I am awake too early and standing on a dock in Jersey City, keys in hand, trying to shake the chaos I left behind when I crossed the Hudson.

Even this inner seam along the bejewelled neckline of the waterfront is part of the City; it is not quite as crowded, but there are enough people to cover every square inch of one's personal space and time. It's impossible to get anywhere without talking to someone. One doesn't leave this peaceful marina village without having at least four conversations, two of those simultaneously. Some aspects of the metropolis extend even to the furthest reaches of inhabitable space.

And a silver lining of a waterfront it is, gleaming just beyond most New Yorkers' perception. Water has always been the most unknown wilderness, feared in every civilization. Our myths and our greatest heroes all have to do with the Sea; those who gravitate toward the water are both slightly larger than life and slightly outside of it, intrepid, or strange.

The floating world is a world in and of itself. The strange urban individuals who want to brave the wilderness, the choppy water and the mighty industrial shipping traffic are this century's urban heroes, confronting myths as terrifying, if less defined, than Ithaka's Skylla and Charibdis: grime washed from streets and people, subway cars, floating bodies and drowned mobsters, the flotsam of waterfront trysts, the detritus of windy days and unknown chemical waste dumps. Most of all, this sea around us, Melville's grim ocean, carries its own burden of terrifying mystique.

Putting oneself in the water is, in some ways, similar to facing death, though with no real or immediate threat. Immersion, with respect for tides and currents, is the best way to confront what lies beneath the water.